When Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers brought their historic roadshow to Chicago a few weeks into the 1947 season, a record crowd of 46,572 people crammed into Wrigley Field, and 20,000 more stood outside wishing they could get in. After the game, fans clambered up the sides of the Dodgers' team bus, hoping for a glimpse of the man who broke major league baseball's color barrier, a milestone chronicled in the recently released movie "42."
By eyeball estimates, half of those in the stands that afternoon were African-American — a remarkable sight at a ballpark on the overwhelmingly white North Side, far from the city's South and West sides. There were fears that the unaccustomed meeting of the races would trigger clashes. Afterward, the Chicago Defender, the city's black newspaper, breathed an editorial sigh of relief: "Robinson Makes Chicago Debut; Fans Are Orderly."
For its part, the Tribune didn't make a big deal about the May 18, 1947, event. The only nod to
history came in reporting that the huge crowd "jammed all available spaces to see Jackie Robinson, his
fellow Dodgers and the Cubs."
Black fans attended the game decked out in their Sunday best, noted columnist Mike Royko. As a teenager, he was at that game and recounted the experience on the occasion of Robinson's death in 1972. His black seatmates, Royko recalled, "didn't wear baseball game clothes. They had on church and funeral clothes: white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes and straw hats. I'd never seen so many straw hats."
Black Chicagoans didn't have much to cheer about then. Many had newly arrived as part of the Great Migration, only to discover that Jim Crow had followed them north. Ex-GIs, having fought for democracy abroad, returned from World War II to find many Chicago neighborhoods still off-limits. The previous year, a black family tried to move into the Airport Homes, a Southwest Side housing development, but had to flee when confronted by 1,000 angry protesters.
So it's not surprising that when Robinson came to bat in the first inning, he was greeted with an outpouring of pent-up emotion, as if just seeing him in a major league uniform tapped a storehouse of joy awaiting an opportunity for expression.
"I remember the sound," Royko recalled, a quarter-century later. "It wasn't the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt."
Yet if some Cubbies had had their druthers, the game, which the Dodgers won 4-2, wouldn't have been played — at least, not with Robinson in the lineup.
"42," titled for the number Robinson wore, focuses on the St. Louis Cardinals' determination not to share a diamond with a black ballplayer. But on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's rookie year, two Cub veterans, pitcher Hank Wyse and catcher Dewey Williams, told an interviewer that their team had also voted to boycott the 1947 game if Robinson took the field. Both rebellions were nipped in the bud when players were warned they would be banned for life from baseball.
(The color barrier was broken at Comiskey Park – and in the American League – less than two months later on July 5, 1947, when Larry Doby pinch hit for the visiting Cleveland Indians in the seventh inning.)
Robinson's 1947 appearance with the Dodgers wasn't the first time he played in a Chicago sports stadium. Having lettered in four sports at UCLA, Robinson played in the 1941 college All-Star game, which annually pitted the best collegiate players against that year's professional champions at Soldier Field. Robinson caught a pass for a touchdown, but the Chicago Bears won 37-13. In talking about the play after the game, Robinson said, "Charley (O'Rourke) just dropped the ball in my arms and all I had to do was put on a little steam." The Tribune noted, "It must have been a lot of steam, judging from the way the colored lad pulled away from Bobby Swisher, the Bears' defensive back, regarded as the fastest player on the Bear squad."
In 1945, Robinson played in Comiskey Park in the Negro leagues' East-West All-Star game, an annual event from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s that regularly drew tens of thousands of fans.
In between those two all-star appearances, Robinson gave the Chicago White Sox a chance to make history. In 1942, he and a black college teammate appeared at the Sox training camp in Pasadena, Calif., asking for tryouts. Allowed to go through the motions, neither got an offer and the episode virtually disappeared from baseball lore. The only newspaper to take notice was the Communist Party's Daily Worker, which long campaigned for equal rights for black baseball players.
In 1945, Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' owner, signed Robinson, sent him to a minor league affiliate for a year, then brought him up to the parent club for the 1947 season. "Thousands hope he will fail," Arch Ward, Tribune sports editor, wrote. "Many more thousands are pulling for him to stay."
At the time and ever since, some felt other black players deserved the same opportunity Robinson got, such as Satchel Paige, the legendary pitcher, whose chance came later, or Josh Gibson, a slugger known as the black Babe Ruth, who died shortly after Robinson's debut.
Maybe so, but it was Robinson who brought hope to those for whom it was in short supply — like the 300 black youths a week who wrote during his rookie year asking for advice and got a reply from Robinson. It was that kind of achievement the Rev. Jesse Jackson emphasized in the eulogy he delivered at Robinson's funeral.
"He turned a stumbling block into a stepping stone," Jackson said, "When Jackie took the field, something reminded us of our birthright to be free."
Editor's note: Thanks to John Driscoll, of the Mount Greenwood neighborhood, for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun